Proposed Muslim Funeral Home Pits County Officials Against Establishment Clause

No ground has yet been broken, but a Muslim funeral home in Georgia is already facing vocal opposition. The facility—which would be the first of its kind in the state—is part of a multi-stage development recently announced by Al Maad Al Islami, a nonprofit corporation led by Imam Mohammad Islam. The funeral home and an accompanying cemetery constitute the first stage, set to be built along Highway 162 in Newton County, located southeast of Atlanta. According to Islam, the second stage of the project would include building a mosque on the site. Depending on the availability of additional funding, a school and public park may round out the project.

Though surely applauded by many, the plan is also facing considerable opposition. Newton County Commissioner John Douglas has expressed his reservations about the project, claiming that “[a]ll the emails [he’s] gotten . . . have been negative for various and sundry reasons.” Among them – a concern that the funeral home, cemetery, and mosque might prompt federal authorities to begin settling refugees in the area.

Douglas’ qualms, however representative and loudly voiced, will prove impotent against both local and federal laws that protect religious organizations, including cemeteries, from discrimination. According to the Newton County Zoning Administrator, both churches and cemeteries are permitted uses on the property in question.

More importantly, as at least one county official has noted, “federal law prohibits [government] from imposing regulations on one religious development and not others.” In fact, in both Larson v. Valente and Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet, the Supreme Court emphasized that preferring one religion over another violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

Therefore, because Newton County does not limit where houses of worship may be built, and because a Christian church already exists across the street from the planned development, any governmental action attempting to impede Al Maad Al Islami’s development will likely run afoul of the Establishment Clause.

Mickey Herman

GA state law made it difficult to open Muslim funeral home

Georgia's first Muslim-owned funeral home opened in Norcross, Georgia on September 19, 2016.

Janaza Services of Georgia cannot only serve Muslims, however. The law in Georgia requires owner Abdullah Tahir Siddiqui to serve everyone regardless of religion. To follow Georgia law, Janaza is required to jump through certain hoops that Siddiqui otherwise would not choose to.

For instance, Muslims do not use caskets, but Janaza has eight on display in his showroom. Georgia law requires all funeral establishments to "maintain on the premises at each of its locations an adequate stock of funeral caskets which shall not be less than eight . . . ." O.C.G.A. § 42-18-70-(b)(3) (2010). Muslims, though, typically will wrap a body in a plain, white fabric and place it straight into the ground or sometimes use a simple wooden box.

Further, Muslims do not embalm their dead, but Janaza's funeral director, Ahmad Rashad, is trained to embalm. Georgia law requires all funeral establishments to be operated by licensed funeral directors. O.C.G.A. § 43-18-71(a) (2010). In Georgia, all funeral directors must be licensed to embalm. O.C.G.A. § 43-18-41(c) (2010). Embalming involves draining the blood from a person's body and then replacing the blood with certain fluids and water that preserve the body. This is what gives the dead the appearance that they are sleeping.

Janaza has an embalming room, required under O.C.G.A. § 43-18-70(b)(2) (2010), but Siddiqui does not use the room for embalming. Instead, he uses it for the ritual washing of the body, an important distinction between Muslim and Christian funeral rituals. 

Muslims have the communal obligation of properly caring for the dead. They believe that the dead can hear and feel what is happening to them as they are prepared for burial. Even during the washing, they keep the body carefully covered and clean it multiple times with soap and water.

For the past 12 years, Siddiqui has used Christian funeral homes around Atlanta to wash and prepare dead bodies, but it was difficult because the Christian funeral homes did not understand Muslim rituals. “I feel always pain in my heart, because as a Muslim we have the feeling that even though it’s a dead body, it has a due respect,” Siddiqui said. Significantly, Muslim men cannot handle or wash the bodies of women unless they are married.

Having Janaza, a Muslim-owned funeral home, eases the burden of the entire Muslim community living in the Atlanta area. Siddiqui embraced this responsibility because he was already involved in Muslim-funeral preparation. Rashad plans to charge customers $1,000 for the basic service as well as offer financial assistance for families who cannot afford that cost. Most important to Rashad is not the money but serving his community, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

Sarah Saint